By Sean McDowell*
January 2004 –We all seek stability and certainty in our lives. And having confidence that what we believe is true reinforces that certainty. Yet many people today, especially youth, are finding their confidence undermined by the popular notion that all truth claims are equally valid. In fact, shockingly, 80% of the U.S. population today no longer believes in a moral absolute. The concept of a universal truth has given way to the postmodern idea that truth is neither real nor knowable. And this uncertainty is exacting a heavy price: it has set many lives adrift, afflicting people with anxiety, lack of purpose, and even despair.
Make no mistake: what our young people believe about absolute truth will directly determine if they find certainty in life. Young people today, probably more than any generation in history, are deeply confused on the nature of truth. In fact, it would be fair to say that youth today are experiencing a crisis of truth. This crisis in truth is manifesting itself in disastrous consequences in the lives of young people. If we desire to transform the lives of youth, we must begin with their beliefs about truth.
Recently I saw some teenagers interviewed on this very issue. They were asked questions such as: What is truth? Can we know truth? Why is truth important? While a couple of the kids had insightful responses, the majority were deeply confused. In fact, one girl replied to a question about the existence of absolute truth by saying, “Yes, I think there is such a thing as absolute truth, its just different for everyone.” Obviously, if absolute truth is that which is true for all people, in all places, for all times, then by that very definition it cannot be different for everyone!
The idea that truth varies based on person, place or time is known as relativism. Relativism claims that what we think is knowledge, truth, and reality is merely personal opinion. Something can be true for you and simultaneously not true for me. In a nutshell, relativists believe that absolute truth does not exist. Clearly, the trend of young people to accept relativism is alarming and will have powerful consequences for this generation and the generation to come if not corrected. Relativism leads to the idea that truth is created rather than discovered. Since there is no ultimate reality that is binding upon us, we are free to create our own truths based on what works. In sum, relativist youth often say, “If it works for you, then it’s as true as it needs to be. And no one has the right to judge you or question what you have chosen as true for yourself.”
What Can We Do?
The swift spread of relativism should come as no surprise to us. Youth today have grown up entirely within the postmodern age, and their thinking reflects it. While relativism and postmodern thought have filtered their way down from the ivory tower to the common man through entertainment and education, there is an important truth we must not forget: much of the relativism of our youth has resulted from the breakdown of the family brought on by divorce, fatherlessness, and neglect of children. The disconnectedness of our youth has severely affected their ability to love and work, and to appreciate the existence of objective truth. For many young people, the need for love and affection blocks their ability to personally experience the truth of God’s love. If we are going to counter the forces of relativism, we must begin by relationally connecting with young people.
Ultimately we need to help young people understand absolute truth – that truth is as real and solid whether or not they choose to believe in it, just as the moon is real even when it cannot be seen on a cloudy day. Contrary to the teaching of relativism, we do not create truth, we discover it. Something is not true if it works; something will work if it is true.
Young people who hold a personal belief that is not grounded in absolute truth will be left empty-handed. Mere belief, regardless of how strongly or sincerely held, cannot provide long-term significance, meet human needs, and solve physical, emotional, and relational problems. Just as a phone call is in vain unless someone is on the other line to respond, a belief is in vain unless it is grounded in truth. To do them any good, the beliefs of our young people about reality must be more than a placebo meant to make them feel good; they must be rooted in objective truth. And the only kind of God who can meet human needs is a God who is real – a God with whom we can make a genuine connection and build a lasting relationship. If we are going to counter the influence of postmodernism and relativism, we must help young people see that truth is absolutely real, and that genuine certainty can only come from a personal encounter with the person of truth – Jesus Christ.
* Sean McDowell is a youth ministry specialist and regular speaker at Worldview Weekend Conferences.
Selected resources to learn more about relativism vs truth
A challenging article written by Dr. Norman Geisler entitled “Any Absolutes? Absolutely.”
The online store of Renewing Your Mind, the ministry of Dr. R. C. Sproul. Apologetic resources include audio tapes, CDs, videos, books, downloads, study series and more.
The Web site from All About GOD Ministries, Inc.
The Internet site of Christian Leadership Ministries. Contains thousands of resources and links dealing with Christian apologetics.
• In Search of Certainty
A book by Josh McDowell and Thomas Williams. Published by Tyndale House Publishers. Available at local Christian Book stores or online.